World War II is often regarded as the last ‘great’ showdown between good and evil, viewed through a prism of right and wrong. While there is some truth in this, the realities for nations and people involved, especially those incidentally dragged into the conflict away from the main theatres of war, were far more complex. Albania, whose World War II tale is largely of occupation, is one such place.
Here, countless domestic agendas and international motives vied for recognition, and the country’s official politics swung violently from far-right fascism all the way to leftist communism within a matter of years. Add to this the tricky issues of nationalism and ethnicity, especially in relation to Kosovo, and you can soon see why the history of Albania during World War II is far removed from the oh-so-simple black and white filter often layered over events during this period.
Yet, this was not the first time little Albania, so strategically situated, had seen itself drawn into conflict. From the Ancient Greeks and Romans to the Ottomans, it has a long history of being invaded. Even before the whistle blew at the start of World War II, Mussolini had Italian troops on the ground in Albania. After his initial bribe to the wonderfully-named King Zog - Albania’s first and only, rather authoritarian, monarch - was declined, he successfully attacked the country’s ports on the 7 April 1939.
King Zog and his family fled, and on 12 April 1939, just over four months before Germany invaded Poland on 1 September, the Albanian parliament voted to unite with Italy, depose King Zog in favour of the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III, and establish a fascist government. Albania now seemed inextricably tied to its puppet master for the duration.
Of course, history tells us that the story did not end there, or how Mussolini would have liked, for that matter. By 1943, after years in league with Nazi Germany, Il Duce's regime was overthrown and Italy surrendered to the Allies with the Armistice of Cassibile on 3 September.
By this time, however, Germany had already clasped its hands around Albania, ostensibly to protect it from a rumoured Allied invasion, all the while encouraging the Balli Kombëtar (or, National Front), an Albanian nationalist anti-communist resistance movement, to form an independent government that would remain neutral in the war but so happen to be pro-German.
The flow of resistance to fascism was not stemmed by this show, however. The communist partisans of The National Liberation Movement (LNC), including a certain Enver Hoxha as one of its chiefs, led the fightback. A motley crew, the movement even included some deserting Italian and German troops, and benefitted from Allied assistance. A fascinating bit of trivia is that the actor Anthony Quinn was an SOE operative who was parachuted into the Albanian mountains to aid the partisans.
In true Albanian style, it did not wait until VE Day to see its liberation, which came courtesy of a hard-fought battle between the partisans and German forces, first in Tirana on 17 November 1944, and then Albania in its entirety on 29 November 1944. The fingers of fascism had been well and truly wrenched from Albania, to be replaced with what would eventually become a hardline communist state. The end of World War II was, sadly, by no means the end of the country’s troubles.
This is, of course, just a snapshot of what occurred in Albania during the course of World War II and an indication that while VE Day is indeed something to be commemorated and celebrated, it - much like the war itself - was not a clear cut affair across the continent; it was not even the end of the war.
As for us, today, here at Wild Frontiers, Albania, tucked away on the southwestern edge of the Balkan Peninsula, is one of our favourite destinations. Not least for its diverse landscape - it boasts both Adriatic and Ionian sea coastlines as well as the ridge of Albanian Alps offering endless opportunities for anyone who loves the great outdoors - but also its capacity for endurance. It has a spirit all of its own that can perhaps be attributed to centuries of fortitude that make its story such a fascinating one to discover first hand.